The High Court is set to rule on whether Johnny Depp’s libel claim against The Sun can go ahead, following a shock move by the newspaper’s lawyers less than two weeks before a planned trial.
The 57-year-old actor is suing the tabloid’s publisher, News Group Newspapers (NGN), and its executive editor, Dan Wootton, over an April 2018 article which referred to Mr Depp as a “wife beater”.
The article related to allegations made against Mr Depp by his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, 34, that he was violent towards her during their marriage – claims he strenuously denies.
In a surprise turn of events at a hearing last Thursday, NGN’s legal team asked trial judge Mr Justice Nicol to strike out Mr Depp’s claim.
Adam Wolanski QC argued that the Hollywood star was in “serious” breach of a court order because he had not given NGN’s legal team what he referred to as the “Australia drugs texts” between Mr Depp and his assistant, Nathan Holmes.
The messages, sent in late February and early March 2015 – shortly before an alleged incident in Australia between Mr Depp and Ms Heard, which she claims was “a three-day ordeal of physical assaults” – demonstrated that Mr Depp was trying to get drugs during the Australia visit, Mr Wolanski said.
He told the court that references to “happy pills” and “whitey stuff” showed Mr Depp was trying to obtain MDMA and cocaine, which he argued was “profoundly damaging to his case”.
But Mr Depp’s barrister, David Sherborne, said the messages were not relevant as they did not relate to the allegations of domestic violence, and said Mr Depp had been frank about his drug-taking history.
He said: “The issue in this case is whether the defendants can prove that the claimant committed serious domestic violence and put Ms Heard in fear.
“It is not about whether Mr Depp asks for drugs.”
Mr Justice Nicol is due to give a ruling on whether Mr Depp breached an “unless order”, which would mean his claim would be struck out, on Monday morning.
However, if the judge does rule in favour of NGN, Mr Depp can ask the court for “relief from sanctions”, which could see the trial go ahead in any event.
During last week’s hearing, Mr Wolanski said Mr Depp subjected Ms Heard to a “three-day hostage-taking situation” in Australia while he was taking MDMA, also known as ecstasy, and drinking heavily.
The barrister said Ms Heard alleges she was subjected to assaults after she challenged Mr Depp for taking a number of pills and washing them down with red wine.
Mr Depp “expressly denies” that he took the drugs, that Ms Heard found a bag of pills or that the pair had any conversations about drug use during that time, and claims Ms Heard went into “a prolonged and extreme rage” after a discussion of a post-nuptial agreement.
His barrister said NGN’s legal representatives have had access to the text messages as they form part of the evidence in separate US libel proceedings Mr Depp has brought against Ms Heard, and that Mr Depp is aware they have been given access to those documents.
The alleged incident in Australia is one of 14 separate allegations of domestic violence, between early 2013 and May 2016, that NGN relies on in its pleaded defence to Mr Depp’s claim.
A three-week trial at the Royal Courts of Justice in London – which was due to start in March, but was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic – is listed to begin on July 7, with Mr Depp’s former partners Vanessa Paradis and Winona Ryder among the witnesses expected to give evidence.
The court has heard that Mr Depp intends to travel from his home in France to London to give evidence, while Ms Heard is believed to have already travelled to the UK from California.
The libel claim against NGN and Mr Wootton arises out of publication of an article in The Sun in April 2018, under the headline: “Gone Potty – How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?”
The headline of the online article was amended shortly after publication to remove the words “wife beater”, but still referred to “overwhelming evidence” that Mr Depp “engaged in domestic violence” against Ms Heard.
Mr Depp has brought separate libel proceedings against Ms Heard in the US, which the court has previously heard are “ongoing”.
The pair met on the set of 2011 comedy The Rum Diary and married in Los Angeles in February 2015.
In May 2016, Ms Heard obtained a restraining order against Mr Depp after accusing him of abuse, which he denied.
The couple settled their divorce out of court in 2017, with Ms Heard donating her seven million US dollars (£5.5 million) settlement to charity.